Legacy of Two Tsunami

Six minutes before 7am on April 1, 1946, an unexpected tsunami walloped Hilo Bay. It had raced across the Pacific from an earthquake epicenter in the Aleutian Islands. Fifty-foot waves jumped the seawall and inundated the town. The waves ripped the first line of buildings from their foundations and propelled them inland, smashing them into the rows behind. As the waves retreated, they sucked splintered debris and a number of people out to sea. By 7am the town was littered with shattered buildings.

Throughout Hawaii the tsunami killed 159 people and caused $25 million in property damage. The hardest hit was Hilo, with 96 fatalities and a demolished ‘Little Tokyo' along the bayfront. Shinmachi, which means ‘new town’ in Japanese, was rebuilt on the same spot.

Fourteen years later, on May 23, 1960, an earthquake off the coast of Chile triggered a tsunami that sped toward Hilo at 440mph. A series of three waves washed up in succession, each sweeping further into the city. Although tsunami warnings blasted on loudspeakers this time, many people didn’t take them seriously.

People along the shore were swept inland, while those higher up were dragged out into the bay. A lucky few managed to grab floating debris and were rescued at sea. In the end, this tsunami caused 61 deaths and property damage of over $20 million. Once more Shinmachi was leveled. But after the second demolition, the bayfront land became parks, while survivors relocated a few miles inland.

How Hilo Got Its Name

One day King Kamehameha was camped near the mouth of the Wailuku River, which flows from Mauna Kea into into the bay. He commanded his servants to guard his canoe and then left to visit a friend. Hours passed, but the servants dared not leave the canoe unattended. Then one servant had a bright idea to secure the vessel with a rope made by twisting ti leaves together.

They left in search of the king. When they found him, he roared, 'Where is my canoe? I ordered you to guard it!' The servants explained how they tied the vessel with twisted ti leaves. Satisfied, Kamehameha named the area 'Hilo,' which means 'to twist' in Hawaiian.